Advocates for an independent redictricting process argue the current strategy guarantees incumbents an advantage that discourages competitive races. TOM RUSSO | DAILY REPORTER
Advocates for an independent redictricting process argue the current strategy guarantees incumbents an advantage that discourages competitive races. TOM RUSSO | DAILY REPORTER
INDIANAPOLIS — Beverly Gard represented Indiana State Senate District 28 for more than two decades, and she got to know the communities she represented well. Gard, a Republican, was familiar with the people in her district and with how to represent their interests.

Then came the redistricting process in 2010, which significantly reshaped Gard’s district.

From 2000 through 2010, she represented all of Hancock County, all of Henry County and Fall Creek Township in Hamilton County. The district now includes Hancock County as well as part of Shelby County and a small portion of Marion County: 27 precincts on the east side of Indianapolis. The sliver of territory, reaching like a finger into Hancock County’s neighboring county, stretches from Washington Street on the south, to Emerson Avenue on the west, to a meandering line along 21st, 25th and 30th streets on the north.

“They changed the district significantly, and I just wasn’t going to have any part of it,” Gard said.

For the first time since then, Indiana will be redrawing the map of its legislative districts this year using data drawn from the 2020 census. Normally, census data would be available in the spring, but because of delays related to COVID-19, the numbers may not arrive this year until June. Legislators will likely have to reconvene for a special session once the numbers are available.

While redistricting is a technical issue, it also has major implications for the balance of political power in both the state and the country as a whole. The drawing of district boundaries is one of the biggest factors determining who wins elections. Map-makers can slice an area that might produce three competitive districts with a relatively even number of Democrats and Republicans, for example, into three districts that will reliably produce two winners for the party in power; one for the party out of power; and no competitive races. And legislatures around the country routinely do just that. According to the Center for American Progress, the process after the 2010 census resulted in the election of 59 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who, according to figures on statewide support for their party, would not have won without it.

Lacking transparency

In Indiana, the state legislature is responsible for drawing both congressional and state maps. A computer program is used to draw the lines, but what criteria lawmakers use to set the boundaries of the districts — and how much those criteria take into account the partisan concern of keeping a party and its incumbents in power — does not need to be shared with the public. When drawing U.S. congressional districts, the legislators must take into account the federal Voting Rights Act, which forbids redistricting in a way that would dilute the voting power of minorities. But when drawing districts for the state legislature, the only restrictions are that districts be contiguous and approximately the same in population size.

In the past, some Hoosiers have called for an independent commission to make sure that process is nonpartisan. With a supermajority of Republicans in the state legislature, that process is unlikely to change this year.

However, a group of Indiana organizations is still hoping to call more attention to the issue this year. All In For Democracy, a coalition of more than 20 organizations including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause Indiana, is forming a citizens’ redistricting commission that will work independently on the issue.

The Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission will have a series of virtual meetings in February and March and invite Hoosiers to join a discussion about what an ideal non-partisan redistricting process should look like. Testimony from those events will be delivered to the Indiana General Assembly before they begin this year’s process.

Paulette Richardson, a member of the League of Women Voters Hancock County, who is involved with the project, said the group received almost 300 applications from people interested in being part of the commission. Three Republicans, three Democrats and three people belonging to neither party were chosen to participate.

“We hope to make the map-drawing process as transparent as possible,” Richardson said.

Charles Taylor is one of three members of the citizens commission who doesn’t belong to either the Republican or the Democratic party. Taylor, a professor of political science at Ball State University, said the process, often called “gerrymandering,” isn’t a problem that’s limited to one party, and its effects are far-reaching, impacting who citizens are represented by and who chooses to run for office.

“It attracts more extreme candidates, on both sides,” Taylor said.

Guaranteeing one-sided races

Taylor said that when a district is gerrymandered to elect Republicans, for example, there’s little incentive for a Democrat to run a campaign that’s likely to lose. What’s more likely is that a contest will emerge during the primary election, with candidates not working to attract undecided or independent voters but to appeal to their party’s most fervent, ideological supporters.

Richardson also said the issue of gerrymandering may be of particular interest to Hancock County voters. She called District 28, with its small portion extending into Marion County, one of the most gerrymandered districts in the state.

Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, was not in office the last time a redistricting process took place. Crider said he will likely support whatever process the legislature uses this year. He said he is prepared for some reshaping of his own District 28, since the population in Hancock County is continuing to increase.

“I don’t mind the district that I represent, but I understand there will probably be some changes,” Crider said. During his campaign in November against Democrat Theresa Bruno, Crider said he saw having a diverse district as an asset and that he regularly met with stakeholders in all areas of the district.

In 2010, Gard already had been thinking about retiring, but the redrawing of her district’s boundaries solidified her decision. She didn’t see what Warren Township had in common with the rest of the district, she said, or how she could represent those constituents.

“There’s some value in representing the same people year after year,” Gard said.

Gard retired before the 2012 election, and Crider succeeded her. She served six terms in the Senate.

Contrasting demographics

The Marion County precincts are different from the rest of the territory in District 28. While Hancock and Shelby counties consistently vote Republican, Warren Township is an area with an entirely Democratic township board and is represented by a Democrat on the city-county council.

In 2020, Bruno ran for the District 28 seat with hopes of being a representative from Marion County, where she sits on the Warren Park town council. Bruno won a majority of votes in the Marion County precincts but lost the election; the Republican majority in the rest of the district easily led Crider to another term.

Crider won 73% of the vote in Hancock County, while in the Marion County precincts, Bruno led with 64% of the vote.

A similar scenario has played out in the past. Former Hancock County Democratic Party chair Michael Adkins ran against Crider in 2012.

“That’s a tough district for a Democrat,” Adkins said.

In his experience during the campaign, Adkins said, voters in Marion County were generally the only ones open to voting for a Democrat. He said the difference didn’t come down to conflicting policy concerns: even voters who agreed with his policies would tell him they just couldn’t vote for a member of his party.

“We tend to dissect ourselves into political parties, rather than values,” Adkins said, and he thinks gerrymandering makes that divide worse by allowing for fewer truly contested elections. “…If you don’t stop redistricting, the country’s just going to get more polarized.”

Bruno continues to advocate for the issue of redistricting reform, although she said it is hard to do so in the way she usually would, by talking to legislators at the state capitol, because of COVID-19.

Bruno said the Marion County precincts should be in a state Senate district with other communities that are more similar, so that they can elect a representative that is willing to fight for the area’s fair share of infrastructure and public transportation funding.

“Crider’s portion here on the east side feels very ignored,” Bruno said. “It would be very hard to represent everybody’s interests.”

Gerrymandering can also discourage people from voting, Bruno said. During her campaign for the Senate, she spoke with people who were reluctant to vote because they did not believe their vote would matter.

“It really just puts a damper on democracy and the democratic spirit,” she said.

Confusion among voters

Taylor agreed that is one of the problems with the current system. Another, he said, is that gerrymandered districts can divide communities between two legislative districts for no real reason. In more extreme cases, gerrymandering can create confusion among voters about who represents them, because their representatives are different from that of nearby neighbors.

“We don’t really know what criteria (legislators) are using when they decide to put the lines in certain places,” Taylor said.

Richardson said she is hoping the work of All In For Democracy will help more people get invested in the issue of redistricting and fair representation. However, she knows that with a supermajority, there’s no real incentive for incumbent Republicans to consider reform.

Unfairly drawn districts, she said, are part of the reason the country has a divided political process that feels inaccessible and unchangeable to many citizens.

“My mantra is, money and gerrymandering has brought us to this point,” she said.

Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, who represents District 53 in the state House of Representatives, also saw changes to his district after the 2011 redistricting process. His district no longer extended into Rush or Shelby County, and instead included some precincts of Madison County. The bulk of his district is in Hancock County.

Cherry said he thought the 2011 changes to the map were motivated partially by population growth and partially by a desire to undo gerrymandering by previous legislatures in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We decided it was time to do that, to get things square again,” Cherry said.

An incumbent with tall odds

But the change to Cherry’s district also meant that a Democratic representative was out of a job. Scott Reske, who had represented District 37, was now located in the same district as Cherry. Cherry said Reske decided not to run against him in the next election because he didn’t think he could win in the new district.

Reske agrees — he couldn’t win, he said, once gerrymandering meant he went from being located in a district that was divided about evenly between Democrats and Republicans to being in one that tilted 70% to 30% in favor of Republicans.

Reske, of Pendleton, said his original district, District 37, had a shape that made sense: It was bordered on three sides by the Madison County line, and the fourth line ran through the center of Anderson. After the maps were redrawn, Cherry’s district cut into Madison County.

“It came up and just kind of grabbed my house,” Reske said.

Reske said he thought the intent of the 2010 map was to create “superdistricts” where either Republicans or Democrats would have a large majority of votes, cutting down on the number of districts where the party in power would have to work hard to win seats.

“Eventually, you don’t have moderate candidates, what I call the problem-solvers,” he said.

Gard said she thinks much of the redistricting process in 2011 was motivated by real population changes in the state, but part of it was also motivated by the desire to stay in power — something both parties do, she said, and something that doesn’t always work.

“Not every district is gerrymandered, but there are some that are,” she said.

Gard didn’t think District 28 was deliberately gerrymandered to keep Republicans in power, but regardless of the motive, she wished the district had been drawn differently.

“I just don’t think it’s fair to have someone in Hancock or Hamilton County represent Warren Township,” she said. “They’re too different.”
© 2022 Daily Reporter